January 2, 2014
In Virginia, landlords have a right to evict commercial tenants without going to Court first. This does not make it likely or wise. Even in jurisdictions where self-help is legal, it is unusual to see landlords piling up their tenants’ business property on the curb. There are several reasons why:
1. Lease Terms: Any self-help must comply with the terms of the lease agreement. The laws of Virginia and its neighbors vary regarding a landlord’s remedies upon the tenant’s default. Many commercial leases are forms adapted from use in other jurisdictions. These forms may be a challenge to interpret under Virginia law. Even terms drafted with an eye to the law of the jurisdiction may not contemplate the exercise of the self-help remedies desired by the landlord’s agents. The terms of some lease agreements eliminate the right of self-help eviction entirely. Many other leases do not clearly define the landlord’s rights to exercise self-help. When parties negotiate the lease agreement, tenants typically request that any detailed landlord self-help eviction terms be edited out. The landlord often finds himself reserving, in a general way, its common law remedies, including self-help, without defining how they may be exercised. When the issue comes up upon default, both parties experience uncertainty regarding how a court would view the landlord’s threatened action.
2. Possibility of Property Damage: The landlord may be averse to taking possession of the property in a way that may damage the tenant’s property or involve physical confrontation with the tenant’s personnel. The landlord may desire an award or settlement for the balance of the lease. Property damage counterclaims complicate collection efforts.
3. Forcible Entry Claims: In certain situations landlords and tenants may be punished criminally under forcible entry, detainer or trespass for aggressive action taken with respect to the premises and business property in dispute.
4. Bankruptcy Stay: If the tenant is in bankruptcy, then an automatic stay likely prohibits self-help. The dispute between the landlord and the debtor-tenant over rights to possess the space is addressed in federal bankruptcy court.
5. Sublease: The landlord-tenant relationship may be complicated by a subletting arrangement. A sub-landlord and the master-landlord may disagree regarding their respective rights to possess the sub-leasehold. Disagreements between the property manager and the sub-landlord may delay action.
6. Institutional Landlords: The organizational structure of the landlord may play a role. When the same individual is the owner and property manager of the building, that person will likely exercise broader discretion than in a more institutional context.
These issues do not necessarily preclude the use of self-help. A risk-adverse landlord may view going to court to gain possession as a desirable alternative.
What should a tenant do if the landlord is threatening to take possession prior to going to court? The simplest options are to (a) avoid falling into default or (b) plan a move-out in advance if a default appears imminent. In certain situations, the circumstances of the business or relationship with the landlord may be too complex or attenuated for that. The tenant may have business operations or valuable property to protect. In any case, careful consideration of the lease terms and cogent communication with the landlord are essential. Where property and income are at stake, potential risks associated with changing locks and removing property are too great for either side to view landlord self-help as the logical first step towards resolving a dispute. In these situations, a tenant is best served by interacting with the landlord through experienced brokers and lawyers.